Bilingualism and Cognitive Ageing

6 Jun

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Ciao, come stai? Dua dhuit, conas atá tu? Bonjour, ca va? Hello, how are you?

I’m sure we all have memories (painful for some) of learning foreign languages in school and the scientific literature is packed with studies examining the impact of learning that second language on various aspects of cognition. A new study conducted by Thomas Bak and colleagues and published in the Annals of Neurology, examined baseline cognitive performance in later life in mono- versus bilinguals, controlling for certain confounds that exist in other studies of this kind.

Much of the previous research into bilingualism uses cohorts of bilinguals from various cultures and environments as well as with various education standards. This can introduce integral confounds such as immigration, differences in the environment they grew up in and ethnic differences. In order to minimise these possible confounds this study made use of the Lothian birth cohort (1936); a relatively homogenous group of 1091 participants who were given an intelligence test at the age of 11 and then again between 2008 and 2010. All are non-immigrant native English speakers who were born and grew up around the city of Edinburgh, Scotland and are all of European origin. This relatively homogenous group allowed authors to examine the impact of bilingualism on later cognitive performance and to adjust for childhood intelligence (CI) while almost eliminating the other potential confounds. Authors also took socio-economic status (SES) and sex into account.

Results suggest that learning a second language has a protective effect against age-related cognitive decline independent of CI and unaffected by SES or sex. Specifically they found a greater effect in reading, verbal fluency and general intelligence compared to memory, reasoning and speed of processing in bilinguals.

They also looked at timepoint of acquisition for the second language and found differences in those who learned their second language early versus late, contingent on childhood intelligence levels. High CI individuals benefited more from early acquisition and low CI from late, but both were still positive effects over mono-lingual participants. Interestingly, they also concluded that learning 3 languages was better than 2.

As with much research there were issues and limitations, such as knowledge of language which was assess via questionnaire not proficiency being one. But this represents an interesting window into the positive effect of bilingualism in cognitive functioning later in life and makes use of an interesting sample population.

Read the full article here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ana.24158/pdf

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